A Virus Isn’t the Only Cause of Hepatitis

Parents don’t have to be lovers of livers to ask me about hepatitis and whether their child can get it. So let me help everyone live-r it up, so to speak, and provide some information on this topic.

The liver is an important organ in our body. It’s on the right side of our abdomen and is responsible for helping us metabolize nutrients and medicines. It even clears toxins from the body.

When the liver gets sick or inflamed, we call that condition hepatitis. Hepatitis is often caused by viruses conveniently labeled hepatitis virus A, B, C, D and E. (The latter two are rare in the US.)

Fortunately, there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B that can prevent infection. The hepatitis B vaccine is given shortly after an infant is born, while hepatitis A is given after age 1.

Hepatitis can also be caused by things other than a virus. These include problems specific to the liver, a bacterial infection, a toxin or poison, or even an overdose of acetaminophen.

No matter what the cause, hepatitis symptoms tend to be similar. They include a flu-like illness, with fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, and pain in the right upper abdomen. Hepatitis is also associated with jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes. These symptoms are due to a blockage of bile in the liver. Hepatitis can cause bile to back up and turn the skin and eyes yellow.

Diagnosing hepatitis can be done with careful patient history, a physical examination, and some blood tests. Acute treatment is usually supportive and can include rest, a well-balanced diet, and hydration. It also includes avoiding acetaminophen, which can further harm an inflamed liver.

The good news is that most children with viral hepatitis A recover in a few weeks without any complications. Medications can treat hepatitis B and C in adults, although there are limited studies of their effectiveness in children.

The best prevention against hepatitis is good hand hygiene and to avoid contaminated water or food. If your child is in child care, make sure staff practices good hand washing when changing diapers and preparing food.

Hopefully, tips like these will make you hep, or I mean hip, when it comes to knowing more about hepatitis and the best ways to prevent this liver problem from occurring.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.


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